Immediately after a serious disaster, you may experience a range of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that can be intense, confusing and frightening. These are common reactions to an extraordinary situation. Most people recover after disasters by drawing on their own strengths and the support of others, and most will gradually rebuild their lives and achieve a sense of well-being again.
Firstly, what is a normal reactions to a crisis
• Feeling overwhelmed
• Feeling numb and detached
• Inability to focus
• Inability to plan ahead
• Constant tearfulness
• Intrusive memories or bad dreams related to the event
• Sleep disturbances
• Constant questioning – “What if I had done x, y or z, instead?”
• ‘Replaying’ the event and inventing different outcomes in order to be prepared should it happen again.
These reactions can be severe and are at their worst in the first week after the event, however, in most cases, they fade over a month. If a person’s day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than two months after the event, it’s important to discuss it with a GP or mental health professional.
- Make sure you listen to your body.
Our body hold a wealth of information. Sometimes we’re so busy trying to get things done that we might not realise when it is getting too much and you actually need a break. The first step is to listen to your body and learn to recognise what the signs of stress are for you and be prepared to do something about it.
It is important to notice any changes in your emotions, your behaviours or your physical health that might indicate that things are getting too much for you. Listen to concerns expressed by loved ones about your well-being or behaviour, they might be noticing something you are dismissing. Ignoring these signs can have serious consequences – burnout, breakdown, health issues.
- Talk about how you feel about what has happened
Make time to find someone you trust to talk openly to about how you’re feeling about what has happened. This helps you to release stressful emotions, relieve tension and puts things in perspective. Avoid the trap of thinking “oh I don’t want to burden them”. Remember during this crisis everyone in your community is likely to be experiencing similar emotions, so talking to family members, friends and neighbours can help everyone to release their stressful feelings, provide comfort each other and come up with practical ways of supporting each other managing the situation.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, helplines like Lifeline and Beyond Blue are available for confidential support and advice.
- Take care of yourself
It will be important to maintain healthily eating, aim for at least eight hours sleep and gentle exercise regularly. Keep in mind your body is already stressed, excessive exercise will add stress.
Spending time with family and friends can stop you becoming or feeling isolated and alone.
- Remember to take time out to relax
So think about what you find relaxing – reading a book, listen to music, watch a movie or try something new, like yoga or meditation.
As part of your recovery it is also important to do fun activities that bring joy and laughter back into your life, both on your own and with family and friends.
Avoid using alcohol and drugs to relax, they only serve to compromise your ability to process what you are feeling and have experienced. Using substances can also increase the potential for mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety which often make your struggles worse, so it’s a good idea to limit your intake.
- Ask for and Accept offers of help from others
It takes strength and courage to ask for and accept help from others. A strong support network reduces your sense of isolation and gives you people to talk to when things are rough. People want to help. Check social media if you doubt it, it’s flooded with the lengths people are going to to help people they don’t know. Research shows that people with strong connections with family, friends and their community cope best in times of crisis. Make a list of what you need and where to go for different types of support and advice like emotional support, financial assistance and keep it in a handy place.
- Helping children and adolescents
Sometimes we don’t discuss stressful situations with our children and adolescents because we don’t want to worry them or we try to hide how we as the adult are feeling. However you are likely to fail, usually children and adolescents are very attuned and pick up on when you are stressed and know when things aren’t right, particularly if they witness the same crisis the adults did. Not knowing what’s going on can make them worry even more. Be aware children and adolescents too may hold back talking to you. They think you already have too much to deal with and don’t want to add to your burden, so they too may try to hide how they are really feeling. Talk to them about their feelings and notice any changes in their behaviour or mood that may indicate that they are feeling stressed.
It’s important to include children and adolescents in age appropriate discussions about the situation and involve them in decision-making as much as possible. Reassure them that, although things are tough, you will get through it together. Help children and adolescents to feel they can be helpful in some way and also help them to understand their responsibilities e.g. concentrating at school, doing homework, helping at home. Recreate a new sense of normal as appropriate will aid their recovery.
- Consult your Doctor or Mental Health Professional
Some people may go on to develop a psychological problem. It’s important to know the difference between a normal reaction to a stressful, traumatic event (see above) and the signs that indicate you should seek additional support.
If you experience any of these symptoms at any time, seek professional help:
• a sense that the emotional and physical reactions are not normal eg: over or under reactions
• thoughts of ending your life or self-harm
• loss of hope or interest in the future
• avoiding things that bring back memories of what happened to the point where it impinging on your day-to-day life or your relationships
• suddenly flooded with flashbacks or intrusive memories eg: when you hear a siren, see a firetruck
• feeling overwhelming fear for no obvious reason
• panic attack symptoms: increased heart rate, breathlessness, shakiness, dizziness and a sudden urge to go to the toilet
• excessive guilt about things that did or didn’t happen eg: survivor guilt because your house was saved.
If a person’s day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than two months after the event, it’s important to discuss it with a GP or mental health professional.
If you find you are experiencing any negative changes in how you feel, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about your struggles. Your doctor can make an assessment and provide helpful recommendations in managing your stress and also any referrals to other service and supports.
- Act immediately if you have thoughts of harming yourself or suicide
People may be at risk of developing anxiety or depression after experiencing a natural disaster like these bushfire. Ongoing stress due to extreme events like these fires can cause you to feel hopeless or so overwhelmed by the devastation that it may lead to thoughts of suicide or self-harm. All thoughts or talk of suicide should be taken very seriously. If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, seek immediate help by talking to someone you trust, calling a helpline, visit your GP or mental health professional. In an emergency, or if you believe someone intends to harm themselves call 000.
Lifeline crisis support call line is available 24/7 13 11 14
Lifeline crisis support chat is now available 7pm to midnight (Sydney Time)
Lifeline Texting support is now available 6pm to midnight (Sydney Time)
Beyond Blue crisis support call line is available 24/7 1300 22 4636
Beyond Blue crisis support chat is available 3pm to midnight (Sydney Time)
Beyond Blue Online forums support is available 24/7
Email support https://online.beyondblue.org.au/email/#/send (Receive a response within 24 hours)